Friday, August 26, 2005, #160 (0934)

Belarus says nyet to Kmara activists

U.S. Embassy official detained in dispersal of separate opposition meeting

By Keti Sikharulidze

Two Georgian Kmara activists Giorgi Kandelaki and Luka Tsuladze were arrested in Minsk, Belarus together with the coordinator of a similar Belarussian youth movement Zubr on August 24.

The arrests were described by Belarus police as a crackdown on illegal aliens but came at the same time as a string of arrests and police interference into opponents of the Belarus government.

The Zubr leader Vladimir Kobets was released the same day and called the Rustavi-2 station to report that the others remained in jail. On Thursday the station reported the two men would be deported over the weekend.

Kobets reported the two Georgians were taken from the Minsk Moscow District police department to a migration service department and will stay their until Saturday when they will be deported.

In Tbilisi, Kmara members gathered at the office of the Liberty Institute and tried in vain to contact Tsuladze and Kandelaki. Both had their mobile phones seized by Minsk police.

Liberty Institute representative Levan Ramishvili spoke of political pressure from the Belarus government. "The police have not started an intensive investigation yet, though I know that they have taken their fingerprints," he said.

The Kmara activists explained that the main reason for Tsuladze and Kandelaki traveling to Minsk was to show support for the local youth movement Zubr, which opposes President Aleksandr Lukashenko.

"There are different groups in each country and our main goal is to support and share our experience with such groups," said Giorgi Meladze, a Kmara activist and lawyer at the Liberty Institute.

Kobets, speaking with Rustavi-2 in a phone interview soon after he was released, mentioned political pressure, adding that the Belarussian government is afraid of a repeat of the "velvet revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine.

"This is a purely politically-motivated arrest because I represent the movement Zubr. The police took our fingerprints, recorded our voice and took our picture. After that I was released," Kobets said.

However, Minsk police claim the opposite. The head of Minsk police press center Oleg Sliapchenko told RIA Novosti that "the two Georgian activists were arrested for illegally entering the country. Their documents were being checked."

"There are different groups in each country and our main goal is to support and share our experience with such groups" - Giorgi Meladze

The parents of the detained Kmara activists learned of the arrest from television. "I knew something about his recent activities, but have never spoken about them with my son. I only knew that they left for Minsk a week ago," Edisher Tsuladze told the TV station.

Giorgi Kandelaki and Luka Tsuladze often travelled to Ukraine on the eve of the 2004 Orange Revolution, helping and advising the local revolutionary Ukrainian youth movement Pora.

On Thursday, the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on the detention and called for their immediate release. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia condemns the groundless detention of the Georgian citizens by the Belarus side, considers such actions to be provocative and categorically demands their immediate release," the statement reads.

The Associated Press reported on the arrests in a story about the brief detention of U.S. Embassy official on Tuesday. The U.S. Embassy's political officer Lyle McMillan was held for about 40 minutes on Tuesday, an activist in the city of Gomel where the diplomat was detained told the AP.

In the report, she said the diplomat had been scheduled to meet with representatives of a variety of non-governmental organizations in a building where the groups have offices. Police notified the NGOs on the eve of the meeting that the building was off limits because of a search for a bomb on the premises.

The venue for the meeting was then moved to a private apartment, the activist said, but police showed up, saying they were carrying out ID checks as part of an operation to detect illegal migrants or criminals and that is when they detained the diplomat.

According to the U.S. State Department, in the past two months Belarus has closed 80 percent of the local offices of three major parties, jailed activists and levied massive fines against the few remaining independent newspapers.

Also this week, a cartoonist who had posted on a website animations mocking President Lukashenko was detained by police and faces up to five years in prison for slandering the president.